About a month or so ago I was asked what I felt was the ‘what’s the most important thing(s) a new believer needs to know/understand?’ In pondering this question, I have landed on two words: incarnation and movement.
Typically, when we talk about Jesus of Nazareth, we tend to focus on the cross – especially when dealing with salvation. And while the cross is extremely important, I feel that we need to back up and talk more about who Jesus is. As in, Jesus of Nazareth isn’t just our savior, but he is “visible image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) whose humility “made himself nothing…being made in human likeness” (Phil 2:7). It is because of the incarnation that we have a “high priest… who has been tempted in every way, just as we are” which allows us to “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb 4:15-16). Sadly, all too often people forget about in incarnation and the fact that the Creator became the created, dwelling instead on the divinity of Jesus which makes him unapproachable and his actions unrelatable. How or why, for example, should I forgive my enemies when Jesus only did that because he was God?! However, I would submit to you all that the overwhelming gist of the New Testament is that we should be imitating the life of Jesus as he is the truest representation of humanity. It is as St. John the Evangelist says, “anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived” (1 John 2:6).
In addition to the above, it is noteworthy that the question about the nature of Jesus (i.e., the incarnation) was THE primary issue debated by the early Church Mothers and Fathers for the first 500 years after the live, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus (this is why the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed includes so much detail about who Jesus is). Most (if not all) of the heresies through church history has to do with the nature of Jesus of Nazareth. Gnosticism, for example, is a heresy that started in the 1st century but lives on today in a lot of churches that states that physical material existence is flawed and evil whereas the spiritual is holy and right. Depending on the stream of Gnosticism, Jesus was either a human who attained enlightenment (i.e., a pure and holy God would not spoil himself by taking on a physical body) or he was a purely spiritual being who fooled his followers into thinking he had a physical body. Another historical, but also modern, heresy is Arianism which states that Jesus isn’t the same as God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Rather, Jesus is the first created or begotten creation of God; hence, removing him from the Trinity. The LDS church teaches a form of Arianism with some twists here and there that makes it a semi-Arianism or such heresy. Definitions aside, understanding the incarnation and who Jesus is will go a long way to helping people stay the course while avoiding the various heresies out there today.
One of the hallmarks of modern Evangelism is the salvation experience. We talk about it all the time: Are you saved? When were you saved? Do you remember the time in which you were saved? Etc. While this time of talk can be helpful, it can also be harmful. Afterall, if we – the church – were doing things correctly, our children would be raised in the faith from the time of their birth to their death. They wouldn’t have a ‘salvation experience’ per se in that they would have grown up walking with Jesus. This, in fact, is my own story. I have never denied Jesus nor left the church or any of the things people say you do when you ‘backslide’ or ‘leave Jesus.’ As such, I don’t have a ‘cool’ salvation story that says that used to do this and that but now I don’t. (Oh, the stories I can tell you about the pressure of having to come up with cool conversation story to tell so that I could fit in with everyone else!!). Instead of a single conversation experience, I have had multiple Holy Spirit experiences in which the Lord has drawn me deeper and deeper into a relationship with him. As such, I would suggest that we focus on movement rather than moments.
Historically, the first followers of Jesus were known as followers of The Way (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23). Some of their neighbors, however, had a hard time understanding this phrase so they called them “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Though the terms are different, buried deep within both of them is the concept of motion or movement. The phrase “The Way,” for example, carries within itself the idea of moving towards something while emphasizes the concept that there is a certain manner in which one is to be moving. Hence, we can talk about a ‘way of life’ or the ‘way to do something. Closely connected to this self-designation is the idea of being a pilgrim. In that we are people, as Eugene Peterson declared, “who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ.” The second term, ‘Christian,’ is from the Greek word Χριστιανός which means means “little Christ” which can be further defined as “follower of Christ.” Hence it is a term that emphasizes movement as being a follower of someone suggests that we are active adherents or disciples of that person. As disciples of Jesus, we are, to quote Eugene Peterson again, “people who spend our lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ” in an ever “growing-learning relationship.” We are to be so in love with Jesus that we seek to emulate him in every thought and deed. As St. Maximos wrote, “he who loves Christ is bound to imitate Him to the best of his ability.”
Philosopher James K.A. Smith builds on this concept in declaring that “being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly – who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.” Hence to embrace being a Christian is to radically change the manner in which we engage the world around us while moving beyond simple answers of certainty. It is to put our hands into the hands of Jesus and trust him as we walk into the darkness of the unknown.
Movement is the one thread that runs throughout all these terms. To be a member of the Way is to embrace a new way of life whereas to be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ. Being a disciple means emulating Jesus while being a pilgrim entails being on a journey with Jesus. The concept of movement is buried deep within the core of Christianity. In reflecting on this, Bishop Kallistos Ware declared that “Christianity is more than a theory about the universe, more than teachings written down on paper; it is a path along which we journey – in the deepest and richest sense, the way of life.”
And yes, if you picked up on the slight change of tone, I did shift into quoting my book The Mystery, the Way, and the Journey. =P Movement in following Jesus is just something I’ve been pondering for a few years now so I grabbed some text I already had written down. Following Jesus is more than just believing in him (after all, even the demons believe, James 2:19), rather it is a way of life that changes the way we drink coffee, talk to our spouses/kids, work, etc. It is as St. Paul said, “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Col 3:23).